The Diary: Bye bye, Bibi: I'm so glad to see you go

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n the House of Commons tea room queue late last Monday night, I found myself behind a colleague who for many years had been a faithful friend of Israel. A non-Jew, he had admired the idealism of the Jewish state and had been a frequent visitor there.

He turned to me with a beaming smile and said, "Now I'll be able to go to Israel again." For the past three years, during the reign of the abominable Netanyahu, he had stayed away. Bibi's defeat meant that my friend could return.

I too could not bring myself to visit Israel during his premiership. Even when, last October, I had gone to Ramallah, the principal city on the West Bank administered by the Palestine National Authority, and had to cross Israeli territory to Tel Aviv for my plane home, I got out of the car only to go to the gents at a filling station. How petty can you get?

But behaving in this infantile way was the only revenge I could take on the Israelis. For, having been involved with the country for nearly 40 years, having gone there dozens of times, I felt personally let down when the wise and courageous Shimon Peres was rejected in favour of Netanyahu in the 1996 election. Moreover, whereas my parliamentary friend blamed Netanyahu for the ills of the Israelis, I blamed the Israelis for the ills inflicted by Netanyahu. He had been elected by the vote of 56 per cent of the Israeli Jews. When they bought him, they knew what he was selling. Now that it has all gone wrong they have returned him as damaged goods and exchanged him for Ehud Barak.

I hope that Barak, a gleaming new product not shop-soiled in any way, will start by refashioning Israeli politics. Under no circumstances should he include the Sephardi religious party, Shas, in his government.

Shas is now the third strongest party in the Knesset, with 17 seats. Last week a friend telephoned me from Israel to explain that Shas had won many seats by corruption - by purchasing votes from interest groups by distributing funds from the Interior Ministry, which it controlled. Peace is, rightly, top of Barak's agenda. Cleaning up Israeli politics must come a close second.

And Barak could do worse than take a look at the Israeli electoral system, which makes possible the proliferation of self-seeking and too often corrupt special interest parties. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once told me that he wanted to get rid of the proportional system that had been foisted on him and substitute for it the more stable British first-past-the-post system. It is ironic that here in Britain attempts are being made to abolish that stable system in favour of an electoral process more akin to that which fostered the rise of Netanyahu's Likud.

NOVELS NOMINATED for the Booker Prize are now reaching me in a steady flow. As chairman of the judges I am therefore involved in the laborious but exhilarating task of reading them and arriving at opinions. Every time I open a cover, I may be in for a surprise. Some surprises are unwelcome. One author, whom I much admire, has come up with a pallid repetition of previous work. Other surprises are more pleasurable. A writer whom I have in the past respected for workmanlike ouput has come up with a novel unlike anything she has ever done and which, to my mind, is of exceptional quality.

Most welcome surprises of all are novels by writers of whom I had known little or nothing. Last weekend I read a couple that filled me with unanticipated delight. There are scores more books to come; but already I have seven that I would be happy to see on the shortlist.

n

THE ROYAL Commission on Reform of the House of Lords goes on the road this week. We are travelling to Exeter to listen to opinions from people in the West Country. There will be other hearings in different parts of England, as well as in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Sitting on a royal commission is unlike any other political work I have ever done. On the shadow cabinet, on Labour's national executive, on the Commons select committee that I chair, I have known of old and sometimes previously worked with most of the people sitting round the table. Of the 11 other royal commissioners, there are several I had never set eyes on before we first convened. During our numerous long meetings we have not only worked hard but begun getting to know one another. I think we are developing a collegiate atmosphere. This is likely to be very helpful when the time comes for us to make decisions. Those decisions will be all the more intriguing because at present I do not have the faintest idea of the views of my colleagues on any of the issues we have been appointed to confront.

n

OOPS! I WAS late at the Commons last Monday night because of the all- night sitting on the Welfare Bill, which led to the backbench revolt that took place despite - or maybe even because of - a speech I made warning darkly against the consequences of any such rebellion.

The revolt took place on Thursday, but had originally been scheduled for the Monday-into-Tuesday sitting. Wandering along a Commons corridor around 3am on Tuesday, I encountered a Labour MP with whom I have always got on very well.

He said to me, both solicitously and flatteringly, "What is a senior MP like you doing hanging around the place at this hour?" I replied, "To vote down the shits who want to demonstrate that their consciences are more tender than mine."

When I studied in Hansard the voting lists, which gave the names of the shits, I found that among them was my solicitous friend.

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