SIMON JOHNSON

Oh, for a quiet life — without election fever

I AM now back on terra firma after a lightning trip to the AIPAC policy conference — the largest pro-Israel gathering in the world — in Washington, the fifth such event that I have attended.

The overall political observation that I have from my trip out there and my subsequent week in the UK is that we are in the midst of election fever.

It seems to be the dominant subject in my world at the moment.The Israeli elections are next week. The campaign has seemed to be interminable, but at least that will soon be over, and the coalition wrangling can commence.

At AIPAC, I was left in no doubt that the American presidential election is in its early stages. And in the UK, astoundingly, our newspapers are full of speculation that a general election might be one of the most practical ways to circumvent the stalemate on Brexit.

AIPAC had 18,000 delegates in the Washington Convention Centre for three days.

Naturally, being so close to an Israeli election, the pre-conference schedule for the event set the scene for a last chance for the main party leaders in Israel to appeal to a mass audience and to show that they have the magic touch with American pro-Zionists.

With the plenary sessions televised live, this was a chance to burnish their credentials, appeal to a wide audience and be the international statesman for an Israeli audience.

The pre-conference schedule boasted appearances by Naftali Bennett, and main stage speeches by the two front-runners — Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the end, only Gantz appeared in person, although many people missed his speech as they were stuck in a never- ending security queue for the Secret Service, as vice-president Mike Pence was speaking after him.

Gantz, by all accounts, spoke well and fluently and only time will tell if the Israeli voting public were influenced.

Netanyahu was billed as the highlight on the final morning, but he had been obliged to return to Israel in his capacity as prime minister/foreign minister/defence minister to deal with the response to the rocket attack from Gaza which had destroyed a home in Mishmeret, north of Tel Aviv.

But, by then, he had already derived all the value he needed from his trip to Washington by being present at the White House as President Donald Trump signed the proclamation recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Netanyahu was able to join the conference by live satellite link, knowing that his statesman credentials had been immeasurably improved by his trip to Washington. The opening skirmishes of the American presidential election for 2020 have just begun and AIPAC found itself as the battlefield.

A number of Democrat presidential candidates had announced they were staying away as they tried to signal to the party’s increasingly leftward drifting base (those who vote in the primaries) that they would take a more nuanced position on Israel.

Senior Democrats from both Houses who appeared on the AIPAC stage tried to reassert the party’s support for Israel and many speakers lauded AIPAC’s bipartisanship in support of Israel.

But vice-president Pence did not read the script. He came to hammer the Democrats and to build up Donald Trump.

With impeccable timing, Trump had made his Golan Heights announcement. The crowd loved it and Pence made a noticeably partisan speech.

He even gloated at Robert Mueller’s report failing to produce evidence of any collusion on Russia. It was hardly on point, but who cares when you are live on TV and there is an election to prepare for?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave an odd speech in which he held himself and the State Department out as the new international policemen against antisemitism.

It felt like another move towards the AIPAC crowd by the administration with election season about to start.

Conference darling Nikki Haley, now no longer America’s ambassador to the UN, effectively signalled that she is thinking of running for president in 2024.

She did not say so much. But she announced a book, a new campaigning website and her new projects — all of which are the traditional precursors to a future presidential run.

It all proves that in America, there is always an election around the corner. So, returning home to the UK, it was depressing to find that the speculation about a 2019 general election is not going away.

In fact, the bookies are offering as low as 3-1 on there being a general election this summer. With the opinion polls as variable as they are, the fact of an imminent general election and the likelihood of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn is most certainly on a Jewish charity’s “risk register”.

Therefore it will not come as a surprise that we have prudently begun to plan for the possibility that a general election may be called.

We have held a number of meetings where we have assessed the current political situation, analysed the polls, reminded ourselves of the requirements imposed on charities by electoral law and considered the nature of our current relationships with the parties.

It seems barely believable that there could be a general election. We only had one in 2017 and this Parliament is scheduled to run until 2022.

With a possible change of leader of the Conservative Party also being discussed, it is interesting that over the last three weeks, the Jewish Leader Council has met with no fewer than five members of the Cabinet.

We met the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. We attended a round table meeting with Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Communities Secretary James Brokenshire. We also invited Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright to JW3 to meet our members with interests in the DDMCS which he runs.

Who knows whether one or more of them will be in a contest to succeed Theresa May when she steps down.

But for sure, I am surrounded by election fever on all sides. Oh, for a quiet life!


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