Israel and the New British Government
“The only way it may get better is if a Conservative government comes into power”.
Sitting in a Tel-Aviv café with one of Israel’s leading political journalists last year, rehashing the by now usual laments over Britain’s role as a hub for anti-Israel agitation, I was quick to disabuse him of this popular notion formed from afar.
Britain’s problem with Israel – perhaps more accurately defined as a problem with Zionism – is nestled deeply within pockets of civil society, where imported grievances mingle with ancient prejudices and very (post) modern ideas in a heady and increasingly dangerous mix that touches almost every raw nerve today’s fierce geopolitical climate exposes. As with my Israeli friend’s judgement though, this issue often looks very different from afar than it does up close. Above all, its complexities are mostly immune to government intervention.
Still, though the academics may tangle over the exact extent of the ‘State’ in the age of the NGO, Parliament does of course matter a great deal. It retains the monopoly on diplomacy and has immense power to amplify voices in the domestic debate regarding Israel.
The many column inches that filled the UK Sunday papers after the first full week of our surreal new political reality belie the fact that it is not yet possible to tell how the sudden harmony between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties will play out. What is clear, on account of the UK’s dire fiscal position, is that the economy will dominate politics for the foreseeable future – to the detriment of everything but the most pressing foreign policy crises.
That said, with Iran’s nuclear programme marching steady ahead, Syria transferring rockets to Hizballah with impunity and Hamas rule in Gaza, it is unfortunately highly likely that Israel will be a central player in some of the diplomatic – or worse – crises the new government will have to take a position or even play a role in.
So what are the attitudes of the new coalition to Israel?
There are many Conservative MPs who truly understand Israel’s plight, not least in the constellation of British foreign policy challenges in the twenty first century, and this is likely to manifest itself most prominently when it comes to policy on Iran – which as expected looks immediately sound.
That said, there are persistent murmurs about long standing advisers around the new Foreign Secretary William Hague lacking an appreciation for Israel’s dilemmas, not helped by his famously declaring her 2006 war with Lebanon as “disproportionate”. Whether this characterisation of the new Foreign Secretary and his team is fair or not remains to be seen, but one would hope that when he trots out the now tired line of the ‘critical friend’ he really does place the emphasis on the latter.
One key test of Parliamentary attitudes to Israel will come with renewed efforts to revise the law on universal jurisdiction under which former IDF staff and Israeli politicians have been prevented from visiting the UK for fear of arrest. Conservatives sympathetic to Israel have indicated that this will indeed be accomplished, but the proof is in the pudding.
Alas, here we come to the influence the Liberal Democrat coalition partners could bear. Many of their members are openly hostile to the Jewish state on a platform apparently borrowed from some of the less nuanced NGOs. Coupled to occasional sentiments expressed in private and in public bordering on – or in some prominent cases clearly constituting – antisemitism, there is ample scope for friction on the issue of Israel. Expect strong words from the Lib Dem benches, though it remains to be seen how much scope for action they will have. Early indications are that foreign policy has seen few concessions from Conservative principles in the frantic negotiations towards a coalition. In light of the Lib Dems’ track record this will give comfort to Israeli diplomats.
Israel, right or wrong, remains at the heart of the preeminent global foreign policy faultline. From that perspective, it is clear that the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem will rightly count 10 Downing street as a good friend. But don’t expect there to be much time, or in some cases love, for Israel when looking out from the Palace of Westminster onto voters at home and troops abroad.
Davis Lewin is the Head of Programmes at the Henry Jackson Society, a cross-partisan London based Think Tank active on Foreign and Security Policy in the UK.