Hysterical reaction to David Ward tweet amounts to an attempt to stifle free speech

This tweet by Lib Dem MP caused a bit of controversy last night and today. The Israeli Ambassador to the UK wrote to Nick Clegg imploring him to “take forceful and immediate action to make clear beyond any doubt that views such as those of Mr Ward have no place in your party.” Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps said “No MP should tweet what’s essentially incitement to violence” and Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi has now (unbelievably) reported the tweet to the police, asking them to investigate Ward for “the offence of encouragement of terrorism”. Hopefully Zahawi will be getting a visit from the police himself soon for the offence of wasting police time.

So what are David Ward’s views? Before the now infamous tweet was published, he said this in Parliament yesterday:

“There are 1.8 million or so Gazans who cannot flee from Gaza today. They are hemmed in by air, sea and land by what many regard to be a brutal and powerful military force, and they are at the mercy of that force. Our thoughts must be with them, as they should be with innocent Israelis who are caught up in this and are under threat from rocket fire in retaliation—others would deny this—for the suppression. Either way, whatever the reason, it must be condemned. Hopefully, more and more innocent Israelis will see that the way to their security is not through military or other suppression of the Palestinians.”

After the storm caused by his tweet, Ward added context to his comment saying:

“What it is doing is understanding the state of mind of people who are absolutely desperate and are looking to the world to help them.”

“If you lived in Gaza and you saw people being blown to pieces by one of the world’s most powerful military forces and no-one was doing anything about it, save for platitudes about calling for a ceasefire, what would you do?

“Well, I don’t know what I would do but I can imagine I would be in a pretty desperate state and would then do things I wouldn’t normally do.”

David Ward, under threat of disciplinary action by the Lib Dems has now given a classic politician’s apology (“I’m sorry if anyone misunderstood what I was saying”), and the a Lib Dem spokesman said:

“This is a categorical apology from David Ward [Me: It’s not really though is it?]. In light of this apology, the party and the whips will decide in due course if further disciplinary action should be taken.”

The mistake Ward made was to use Twitter – not the best place to state a nuanced argument – to make a statement that could obviously be stripped of all context and jumped all over. He should have written up his views on his website and the tweeted a link. Nevertheless, the reaction to what is a perfectly rational point of view to hold (whether you agree with it or not), amounts to an attempt to stifle any views outside of the ‘consensus’. For the Israelis to react in this way is probably to be expected, but for the Lib Dems to agree with them undermines their ‘liberal’ values. If Ward had said something like:

“The big question is – if I lived in Israel would I join the IDF? – probably yes.”

no one would have batted an eyelid. The other day, David Cameron – having no doubt heard the reports of hospitals being bombed, civilians being killed by snipers and kids being blown up on beaches – said he supported Israel’s right to defend itself. This sort of public statement is much more likely to incite violence than anything David Ward could say. It says to the Israeli Government loud and clear – “We support what you’re doing”.

It seems to me the only permitted opinions a politician in the UK is allowed to express on Israel-Palestine is the following:

1. Condemn Hamas terrorists

2. Support Israel’s right to defend itself

3. Express mild concern about civilian casualties in Gaza, while holding Hamas equally culpable.

Anything outside of this is forbidden. When discussing complex and seemingly intractable problems, condemning those who stray even mildly outside the agreed talking points, stifles debate and makes a solution to those problems even less likely. I think it’s quite dangerous, and more than a little worrying.