Ed Miliband’s patron Neil Kinnock knows only too well from his own pre-election snub by Ronald Reagan that attempts by leaders of the opposition to ‘look prime ministerial’ by jumping on a plane and pumping hands overseas are fraught with danger. It is all the more perilous if they land in the middle of a major diplomatic crisis.
As the reluctant traveller starts a three and a half day trip to the Middle East, Ed Miliband will be well aware that this is a place that has seen even the most accomplished politicians get tripped up.
But he also knows there is also the opportunity to highlight a more personal issue: the values that motivate him.
The Labour leader’s visit to Israel and Palestine, therefore, has a number objectives, from the personal to the political, as his team tries to sketch out more about the Miliband the man and his potential as a prime minister.
Like David Cameron’s recent visit, domestic events have conspired to make this trip happen later than was intended, and it has certainly been a source of concern among the foreign and development policy community and beyond that the Labour leader has spent so little time discussing international affairs at home or abroad.
What we have seen during the delay is confirmation that John Kerry’s latest push for a process, let alone peace, is in serious trouble. The reasons for this are still the source of ongoing debate and the state department was quick to deny any suggestion that the Americans put the blame at the doorstep of the government of Israel, even if that was the logical conclusion of the secretary of state’s recent remarks.
The American envoy, Martin Indyk, is still trying to bridge the gaps between the parties and will have a joint meeting with both negotiators in a few days’ time. But for now we are back in a holding pattern with the international community at risk of splintering along the traditional factional lines absent a credible process to hold them all together.
For Miliband at least this does mean the script is one we are sadly all too familiar with: a repeat of the desire to see the justice and dignity of Palestinian statehood alongside a secure state of Israel, a call for the parties to return to negotiations and for both sides to refrain from any activity (code for settlement-building or violence) that would make that harder.
The Labour leader has talked movingly in the past about his Jewish heritage and the impact the Holocaust has had on his family story. It clearly is part of what shapes him as a politician even if he has had a more ambiguous relationship with the Jewish faith. The visit to the kibbutz where his extended family are shows the best of those progressive values that shaped Miliband politically as well as the founding of the state of Israel.
However, that Labour tradition in Israel has taken a real battering in recent years as the party has sought to renew itself since the premiership of Ehud Barak and the failed Camp David negotiations all the way back in 2000. There will, therefore, be much in common to discuss when Miliband meets with the new Labour leader, Isaac Herzog, and much potential for a strengthening of that political alliance.
As for Miliband’s meetings with the current Israeli administration, it will be looking to ensure that he will have no truck with the boycott, divestment and sanctions agenda, while also stressing its belief in the existential threat that Iran still poses and a hope that the recent Syria vote is not a symbol of a Labour party that is going to be isolationist rather than interventionist.
On the Palestinian side, there will be appreciation that Miliband and Douglas Alexander, who is also on the trip, did not oppose the Palestinians’ moves for recognition at the United Nations and there will be a desire for that to be supported in the months ahead in the absence of a negotiated way forward.
As ever both sides will be looking for certain orthodoxies to be repeated and the media on both sides will be looking to jump on any deviation from the standard script.
But if Miliband is seen to be given access to the senior political leadership on both sides and handles such a complex issue competently, while also fleshing out more of his personal story, then the trip will have been well worth the effort.
Matthew Doyle was an adviser to Middle East Quartet Representative Tony Blair from 2007 to 2012. He tweets @doylematthew
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